Friday, September 15, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Getting Them to Read

I've really been thinking about reading this week. A big part of the prep work for college-level course work is reading. I assign a fair bit of reading to my students--generally at least a chapter to prepare for each class meeting. (This varies a bit, of course, depending on the subject matter or the course.) And I think it's pretty important for students to do this reading.

I mean, if it wasn't important, I wouldn't assign it, right?

But I'm also a little cynical. I know that as a college student, I didn't always do all of the reading assigned. (Gasp! This feels like true confessions...) I suspect that some of my students are in this boat too. It's not like they deliberately set out to not prepare for class. But I wonder sometimes if there are things I'm doing as an instructor that make it less likely that they will do the reading I want them to do?

For example, there have been times that I assign a reading, and then I lecture on exactly what I had students read, point by point. I suspect that savvy students who are strapped for time will realize this quickly, and decide that they don't really need to do the reading, since I'm just going to tell them what was in that reading anyway. (I think that is probably what I would do in this situation, anyway. True confessions again...)

Or perhaps I selected a really, really expensive text for the course. Students--frugal as they are--might get together with a friend or two and purchase the text in cooperation, and share a book between them. I actually applaud this approach, but the problem is, what if your book-buddy doesn't get it to you in time to do the reading? I suspect that this happens quite a bit.

An aside: I actually had this situation in a course a few semesters ago; I picked a REALLY GOOD TEXTBOOK but didn't give any consideration to the cost of the book. Students mentioned to me that they had to pay around $130 for the book, and even though they recognized it as a good text, it was hard for them to stomach that price. When I discovered this, I spent a lot of time looking for a cheaper text that would accomplish the same thing. And I did find one that was much, much cheaper--only about $25--that did almost as good a job explaining the content as the very expensive book. Yes, it might be a little more work for me to teach using a not-quite-as-good-but-much-cheaper text, but to me, this was worth it, if my students would actually read the book. And that was the reality: some of them weren't reading the REALLY GOOD TEXTBOOK, because they didn't have access to it.

One more scenario: there have been times where I assigned a particular text because it was a good one for students to read in the discipline, but because we had so much on the syllabus, we didn't actually do much with that particular reading in class. Without some accountability, students were not likely to actually do the reading. I assign them a reading quiz to make sure they read it? Shoehorn in a little more content into an already packed class meeting to touch on the reading? Just hope that they make the connections on their own, whether they actually read it or not?

With all of this rolling around in the background, I was really deliberate in selecting texts for my World Regional Geography course this semester. Here's the main text I decided to use:

The Plaid Avenger's World, 6th Edition. Best geography book I've found!

This is the best geography book I've found. Hands down. The author is brilliant, and explains things well, and leaves plenty of food for thought about the content, calling us to reflect on our own responses to what's going on in the different regions of the world. He writes in a vernacular style that is almost the antithesis of most geography texts: zesty, clever, funny, and occasionally crude (he uses some profanity that I'm not fond of, honestly) where most geography texts are dry, clinical, facts-and-figures oriented tomes. My students have responded positively, for the most part--though some have expressed their concern about the saucy innuendo he sometimes uses. (Yep, I know, kiddos...)

But most interesting, they report that they are really reading this book. One student told me she often winds up sharing things with her roommates from each reading assignment. Another told me that she surprised herself by telling her mom on the phone that she can't wait to do her geography homework each week. (Okay, that surprised me too!)

So, at this point (3 weeks into the semester) it seems that choosing an engaging text has been a good strategy for getting them to read. (Yay!) There are a couple of other things I'm trying this semester to be deliberate in helping students actually read the text:

  • I specifically picked an older edition (2012 copyright) of this book, because it was cheaper for the students than the latest edition. Yes, there have been a few maps that were out of date, and a few tables of population figures that are now incorrect. But we're even using this as a learning opportunity: "Here's how the world has changed in the five years since this book was published..." Some students are still sharing copies, but that's fine with me, and they are making a point of getting their hands on the book to actually do the reading.
  • Since it's my first time teaching this course, I am doing every reading assignment right along with them. I have often talked a good game about reading, and taking reading notes, but this semester I'm being really deliberate about this. I usually handwrite notes as I read, and I've been scanning my own reading notes and sharing them with students on our course website so they can see a model of what this looks like. (One student confessed after class the other day that she has never actually taken notes on something she has read for class, ever. And she is a Junior in college. Makes me wonder if she's the only one? She said she is doing this now, and seeing a model was helpful for her. I think there's a lesson there for us...)
  • Since this is my first time teaching a strongly content-oriented course since I was a middle school teacher (see this post for more on that idea) I've been thinking a lot about how to support students in getting the most out of their reading. And...I've turned back to a strategy I used a lot for my middle school students--not because I want to treat my current college students like middle schoolers, but because it's a really helpful way to encourage students in the reading. The strategy is called "clink/clunk." Here's how it works:
    • Ahead of time, I go through the text and make a list of all the different sections of the reading, important concepts, key vocabulary, maps and charts they should examine carefully, etc.  I turn this list into a table with columns labeled "clink" and "clunk." 
    • As students read, they use this clink/clunk sheet to keep track of their thinking as they read. If they read a section and think, "Yep, I think I've got that," they check "clink." If they read it and think, "Hmmmm...I have a question about this," they check "clunk." There is space on the sheet for them to jot down their questions too.
    • I usually also leave a space for them to summarize the whole reading: in a nutshell, what is the big take-away from this reading?
    • Here's one of the clink/clunk sheets, if it helps you picture it...
      I didn't come up with this strategy, by the way.
      (Thanks to Dr. Pam Adams for sharing with me years and years ago...)
    • When we meet up in class then, rather than just lecturing on everything, we start by talking about what went "clunk" for them. They are more invested, because I'm tailoring my teaching to what they need clarified. And I'm not just holding forth, whether they understand it or not.
    • Is it perfect? Foolproof? Nope. In the end, I still don't know if they really read it. They could just go clinking their way down the page, and fake their way through. But based on the level of discussion and interaction we have in class, it sure seems like they have been reading and thinking. (Questions like, "Well, on p. 76 he says..." sure make it sound like they've been reading and thinking deeply!) The trick is still getting students to actually open up and admit that they have questions...
    • But I'm working on this too. For our last class meeting, I set up an anonymous Padlet and invited students to partner up and decide on a question that they would really like to have answered in class. The anonymity--and the fact they they could collaboratively agree that they had questions to ask--made this last class discussion go really well. They asked great questions about what they were reading. We were able to clear up muddy points, and we wound up talking about things at a deeper level than we probably would have if I had just lectured on the topic, because they asked a lot more follow-up questions to ensure that they were understanding the concepts.
Am I "there" yet? Nope. But I've been really pleased with how the reading, reflection, and responses have been going so far this semester. Let's keep in mind that this is week 3...we'll see what things look like by week 13.


  1. Thanks Dave. Very helpful ideas in here. I really like your clink, clunk concept and will certainly use that.

    1. Glad you found it helpful, Phillip! As I say, it's not a panacea...but it definitely seems to get them more actively involved in the reading. Hope it works as well for you as it has for me!